VIENNA — For those banking on democratization to reduce Arab hostility toward Israel, the recent public uprising in Lebanon and the Iraqi and Palestinian elections signaled a societal shift. Freedom is on the march in the Arab street, in this view; greater acceptance of the Jewish state would not be long in coming.
But those eagerly awaiting the dawn of a new Middle East would do well to first tune in to the region’s growing number of satellite television stations, which have been adept at channeling public opinion. In the Arab world’s suffocating political atmosphere, the satellite networks have emerged as the region’s public square. By most accounts, it is here that the battle for hearts and minds will be won or lost.
Unlike most state-run Arab media, known for manipulating the news to mold and control the public, the satellite stations build their coverage around popular opinion. Indeed, the networks’ popularity can be attributed to their serving as mouthpieces for the long-silenced Arab public. The sobering news is that when it comes to Israel, the Arab street is not especially open minded — although, according to one of the region’s most influential media figures, it is not as dogmatic as might be expected.
“When we first started Al Jazeera — and I was here among the small handful of people that started it — we started interviewing Israelis,” Ahmed Sheikh, chief editor of Al Jazeera, told the Forward. “That was eight years ago. At the very beginning, people really rejected it and they accused us of all the things that can come to your mind. But now we feel that people have actually accepted it. They never criticize us for that. Some of them still do, those who are more fundamentalist than others. But the majority of the people have gotten used to it, and they accept it.”
Given the ubiquity of satellite television in the Arab world, Sheikh’s belief in the possibility of engaging public opinion on Israel cannot be dismissed easily. The success of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera has spawned a pack of imitators, led by the Dubai-based Al Arabiya and the Hezbollah-run Al Manar. Today, such stations are the main source of information in most Arab countries — and particularly so in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza, where close to 85% of the population has access to satellite television.
Despite its reputation in the West for anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish bias, Al Jazeera remains far ahead of other Arab media in its willingness to give airtime to the Israeli perspective. As the trailblazer for independent media in the Middle East, the network earned its bona fides with the Arab street by speaking truth to power. And its no-holds-barred coverage of the Palestinian intifada — including graphic film coverage and often-vitriolic call-in response — has granted Al Jazeera a reservoir of credibility that allows the station to occasionally cross public opinion on Israel.
With few exceptions, however, most Arab media have neither the resources nor the iconoclastic reputation to weather the backlash that inevitably follows more nuanced coverage of the Jewish state. Arab journalists acknowledge that they tailor their coverage of Israel to appeal to public opinion; simply put, the Arab street is not interested in hearing what the enemy thinks.
“To a certain extent, there’s self-censorship,” said Wafic Kanso, the Beirut-based international affairs editor of the influential pan-Arab daily Al Hayat. “The public is feeding this self-censorship. On a day when they see Israeli planes hitting Gaza, the public will never understand why Arabic television would bring an Israeli analyst on air to explain why they hit Gaza. People will never understand this.”
Countering the Arab public’s unwillingness to consider the Israeli perspective would require nothing less than a full-scale public-diplomacy offensive by Jerusalem. But it is not clear that such an effort would have even a fighting chance. Indeed, some Arab activists argue that more exposure will only hurt the Israeli cause.
One Islamic fundamentalist leader, Issam al-Arian, a member of the General Guidance Bureau of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, pointed to an interview given to an Egyptian newspaper by Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon last month, on the eve of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, to illustrate what he saw as the boomerang effect of Israeli outreach.
“Mr. Sharon had an interview in Al Ahram, the most famous newspaper in the Arab world,” al-Arian said, referring to the semi-official Egyptian daily. “And Mr. Sharon shocked all of the Arabs with his ‘no negotiations, no Jerusalem for Palestine, no right of return.’ All of his no’s were very clear, and translated to the Arab world…. I think it is better for the Israelis not to have their perspective in the Arab media.”
The Brotherhood leader’s sentiment cuts to the heart of the chicken-and-egg dilemma of engaging Arab public opinion: The media is the primary channel for tackling public opinion, but public opinion on Israel holds the media back from pushing the discussion forward. The media’s inability to expose the Arab street to competing views on the Jewish state suggests that it will take years, if not decades, before public opinion can be dealt with in a constructive manner.
Al Jazeera’s chief editor, however, dismisses such reasoning, arguing that his network’s journalistic ethos has already altered the parameters of debate in the region.
“Our responsibility is to inform people about what’s going on, and to educate them,” said Sheikh, who was born in the West Bank city of Nablus. “What we are doing, as a freewheeling news organization, is really having an impact on the average man on the street. The people, it seems to me, are now more receptive to the idea that there’s another party, that there’s always another party. You might have a different point of view, but you should respect and accept that people have the right to express their different points of view. I think this is really having an impact on the Arab street.”
The risk of Israel and the West failing to engage Arab public opinion, Sheikh continued, is too great for the media not to attempt to channel the winds of change currently blowing across the Middle East.
“We need to understand each other,” Sheikh said. “The present situation of estrangement cannot continue.”